The origins of yoga is a much more dense topic that many people might realize. It’s been about 150 years since yoga first became popular in the United States. But the history of this mental, physical, and spiritual discipline dates back almost 5,000 years.
Over the course of several millennia, generation after generation of men and women redefined what it meant to be a yogi. Despite the variety of schools, practices, and goals that have come and gone over thousands of years—one thing has remained the same.
This complex yet beautiful system of exercises has always been able to help people live happier, healthier lives. And that means yoga will continue to thrive all over the globe.
In America, the average woman feels it’s okay to wear yoga pants to the gym, the grocery store, or to run errands. And most Americans are familiar with a host of different yoga disciplines, such as Bikrim, Lenevo, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Lyengar, Kundalini, and Jivamukti—just to name a few.
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But despite its popularity, only a handful of people truly understand how, where, and when yoga began. To provide more clarity, here’s a brief but informative history that discusses the origins of yoga to explain why this important cultural phenomenon continues to thrive.
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Yoga in Early Civilizations
To better undestand the question of where did yoga originate, it’s important to acknowledge that yoga is rooted in an oral tradition. And that simply means yogis originally passed on their knowledge from person to person during teacher-led yoga sessions, similar to how people learn today.
Research on the origins of yoga shows that this discipline may have first been developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. Historians believe that the word yoga was first used in one of the oldest and most sacred books of Hinduism called the Rig Veda, which was written in an ancient form of Sanskrit about 1500 BC.
This collection of songs, mantras, and rituals were used by the Brahmans, the highest Hindu caste of priesthood. But over the years, yoga was fine-tuned and fully-developed by the Brahmans and the Rishi, enlightened mystic seers, who documented their practices and beliefs in another ancient Sanskrit text on spiritual teaching and Hinduism called the Upanishads.
Around 500 B.C. one of the most renowned yogi scriptures was created—the Bhagavad Gita. It was derived from the Upanishads, and it teaches how to sacrifice the ego and instead focus on self-knowledge, action, and wisdom.
A Fluid Exercise
Keeping up with all of these long forgotten civilizations can be quite overwhelming. But the real takeaway is that yoga is an intricate system of physical postures and meditation that a number of different ancient cultures practiced over thousands of years.
Each one of those unique civilizations had different yoga poses and postures. Although this might seem strange, Dr. David Gordon White, an expert Indianologist with a PhD in religious studies, states that most of our popular assumptions about yoga are from the past 150 years. According to his extensive reasearch on the origins of yoga, he also asserts that very few modern-day practices originated before the 12th century.
Today, if you walk into a yoga class or visit a local studio, you’d notice a lot of the same popular poses like the downward facing dog, one of the most widely-recognized poses. But this widely known pose didn’t become popular until about the 18th century.
This example highlights the fact that the specific roots of yoga will always be a mystery, since different cultural groups throughout history practiced their own versions of yoga. That’s partly why so many different people are able to make yoga part of their lives today.
Connection to Religion
Just like the vast number of poses and postures, yoga means different things to different people. A number of people often ask is yoga a religion? But most yogis agree that yoga is spiritual by nature. Even though practitioners don’t need to attend a church service, worship in a mosque, or visit a synagogue, spiritual themes are often addressed in the classes and come up in conversations about yoga.
The origin of the word yoga is believed to have been derived from the Sanskrit term “yoke,” which means to link or to connect. Thus, the accepted theory is that yoga was created to unite the human spirit with the divine, a connection that people from every culture try to achieve.
In answer to the question is yoga a religion—know that practicing yoga doesn’t necessarily mean worshipping Hindu gods. However, yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophical traditions. The widely accepted belief is that yoga was created in response to the search for inner peace and spirituality.
Although practicing yoga can do wonders physically, it was created to emphasize mindfulness and movement. Yoga is believed to be a pathway designed to help people move past emotional and physical tension to prepare for meditation.
Yoga in America Today
Regardless of the reason that people come to the mat, yogis are signing up in record numbers. According to research that was conducted by Sports Marketing Surveys USA and sponsored by Yoga Journal, about 8.7 percent of Americans practice yoga, which is about 20.4 million people.
Although that number may seem high, roughly 38.4 percent of those survey participants said they practiced for a year or less, and 44.8 percent described themselves as beginners. Even though yoga is as old as human civilization, the discipline is becoming especially popular in the West right now.
Today, when many people think about yoga, a specific set of images comes to mind. Possibly affluent Westerners wearing expensive yoga pants, trend-sensitive 20-somethings immersed in holistic treatments, and athletes who want to tone or shape their bodies. However, the orgins of yoga shows that the practice encompasses so much more than that.
The origins of yoga date back to a period when people didn’t write much down and Youtube was unheard of. Instead, this beautiful doctrine is the product of a time when people spent hours learning about spirituality and wellness in the pursuit of self-development.